SAN FRANCISCO -- The massage room at the California Pacific Medical Center is open only a few hours each day, but demand is high from rattled doctors and anxious patients.
"Physicians have asked us to increase our hours so they could come in after their shifts, or after long hours of surgery," says Marian Williams, program coordinator of the massage therapy service.
"By giving massages to the doctors and keeping them healthy, they can be more effective with their patients."
Back rubs are only one element of a model program at the hospital aimed at putting doctors in touch with alternative healers and with their own bodies. Through informal lectures and an annual symposium, physicians are brought together with Buddhist monks, acupuncturists, Chinese herbalists, theologians, philosophers, psychologists, even interior designers.
"The idea is to heal the healer," says the Rev. Barbara St. Andrews, an Episcopalian priest who created the program along with Dr. William Stewart, an ophthalmic surgeon.
According to St. Andrews, the program is the first of its kind in the country, and a model for others that are sure to spring up.
"Imagine 40 physicians sitting around in a circle in somebody's living room, while a saffron-robed contemplative, accompanied by Indian musicians, speaks about the deeper matters of the heart," she says. "That particular meeting was held in the home of an interior designer who brings her aesthetic understanding of colors, architecture and design to healing. For example, how the color of the walls can affect a patient's mood."
Patients have always known that support, comfort and nurturing by doctors, family and friends can help speed recovery. But it can also prolong life, as a 1990 Stanford University study with a group of breast cancer survivors showed.
Women with advanced breast cancer who were in support groups lived twice as long as other women with equivalent illness and medication, the study found.
"Why can't you walk into a hospital and have a team of people available to offer support and advice?" St. Andrews asks.
The "Program in Medicine and Philosophy," which began 18 months ago, was set up to "bridge the gap between the latest in scientific care and other mediums of healing," says Dr. George Lee, chairman of the obstetrics and gynecology department at the hospital.
The program was inspired in part by Planetree, the innovative consumer health care organization at the hospital, which began in 1981 with a medical library open to the public, the first of its kind on the West Coast.
Dr. Lee has sent patients to the massage center, for example, "for that all-important act of touching. Some of them have never had a massage before. A major part of what physicians did in the past was sit by the bedside, holding someone's hand. No one does that anymore; we have lost some of that art, and people are crying out to bring it back."
Dr. Lee has thought about having a massage himself, he says, "but Tuesday at 4 p.m. in 1996 is the first free half hour I have."